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Q&A: How Are School Board Decisions On Mask Mandates Playing Out Across The State?

Elementary students wait to exit their bus before school starts for the day. Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
Courtesy Allison Shelley
Alliance for Excellent Education
Elementary students wait to exit their bus before school starts for the day.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says everyone in schools should be wearing a mask to guard against the spread of COVID-19 — especially with the highly contagious delta variant circulating and the unknowns that it brings. Since a statewide mask mandate expired, local school boards are making their own decisions about the rules for their students and staff when classes start up again.

WUNC's education reporter Liz Schlemmer talked with editor Amy Jeffries about the latest changes and how local decisions are playing out.

The state has provided some guidance as school boards are making their decisions. What's new about this advice?

The newest CDC guidance that state health officials are also following says schools should require universal masking for students and employees indoors, regardless of their vaccination status ... but, it's no longer required.

How are the conversations around this guidance unfolding in school board meetings?

The discussions usually start with school administrators or local health officials giving an update on the latest COVID-19 trends and state guidance, often followed by a recommendation for universal masking.

Public comment sessions have been long. There's a lot of pressure from parents showing up who want masks to be optional.

Anna Elliot is one of the parents that spoke at the Granville County school board meeting. She said she might even homeschool her kids if masks are required.

"We do not co-parent with the government. Let's not muzzle our children anymore. They've been through enough this past year," Elliot said.

Another common point anti-maskers have made is that children aren't at high risk for hospitalization compared to adults.

How are health officials responding to the argument that it's rare for kids to get really sick from COVID?

It is rare, but if you can consider in a really large district like Wake County Schools, even if that's a small probability, it could still result in one or two children being hospitalized. No district wants to be the one where a child dies.

What are local school boards deciding when it comes to masks?

More than half of North Carolina school boards that have voted on this issue so far have gone mask optional.

From the most recent count of information collected by the North Carolina School Board Association, about 40 school districts are requiring universal masking and about 50 school districts are making it optional.

Those that are making masks optional tend to be in Republican majority areas, which tend to have lower vaccination rates.

Those that have required masks are generally requiring them indoors and on buses, with exceptions for people who provide medical reasons.

A big concern in all of this is that students could lose instructional time due to mandatory quarantines if the virus spreads, and it is spreading rapidly right now.

What kind of policies are we seeing this year around quarantines for possible COVID exposure?

We have seen examples, even this school year, where schools with in-person classes have had many student cases and quarantines.

But there is a new quarantine rule that reduces the risk of students having to miss class if universal masking is in place.

If everyone is masking and one student tests positive, other students who were masked when they were near that student no longer have to quarantine for 10 days.

Those quarantine rules are upheld by state law. They are not optional for school districts.

Tiffany Kilgore is a choir teacher and she's a representative at the Wayne County Association of Educators. She explained what this will look like if students aren't all masking...

"If I wear a mask but I am near a student that has no mask ... and has COVID, I would have to quarantine. A person who is unmasked that spreads COVID in schools will cause children en masse to quarantine and lose instructional time," Kilgore said.

Another change in this new guidance is that schools are no longer required to offer a virtual class option for students when they're sick or quarantined.

One thing that's common across schools is that their ultimate goal is for this school year to be as normal and consistent as possible and to maximize the amount of time that students are in their classrooms.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
Amy is the Daily News Editor at WUNC in Chapel Hill where she manages day-to-day coverage of everything from gerrymandering to rogue emus.
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